Chapter IX - Alternative Medicine
Whether you’re a pirate or a pasha, or just a humble slave trader and aspiring evil vizier, when you see a zombie odalisque clawing at your window, your first impulse is to slam it closed and flee at your earliest possible convenience, which is typically very early indeed. Why, then, you might wonder, did I instead choose to yank the rampaging undead sex slave through my bedroom window with both arms and draw the curtains behind her?
Was it a surprise attack intended to catch her off guard? Was I a closet necrophiliac glad to be spared the trouble of raiding a morgue, tomb, or grave for my latest fermented lover after an exhausting day that had already been stained by the blood of a very thoroughly eviscerated young female in the sultan’s Examination and Autopsy Kiosk? Or was I, perhaps, desperate to cover up the evidence that one of my bespoke high-end odalisques had fled the royal harem in a pitifully dilapidated state, thus doubly heaping shame on the pristine brand of my family-owned slaving business—not to mention violating the clearly agreed terms of her voluntary enslavement contract, and most especially Title 14, Clause IX, “The undersigned sex slave agrees to take immaculate care of her skin on all occasions, whether public or private, avoiding any wrinklings, creasings, frecklings, blackenings, purplings, and reddenings of its surface, not excluding other forms of damage, through the use of whatever cleansers, creams, lotions, potions, (etc., etc.) her cariye deems appropriate for the purpose,” beside which the odalisque in question had very prominently inscribed her initials?
No, I had an entirely different reason for executing a hugging maneuver so unpredictable that its invention exceeded the serviceable cranial capacity of ordinary slavers by an inestimable (though certainly very large) degree: in the quarter-light that reached the alley from the desert stars above us, I saw—still clutched in the blackened fingers of her right hand—the vague outline of a familiar and irreplaceable wig, so voluminous that a passing observer would assume she held the complete head of her last victim and was trailing its longest locks along the ground to split their ends as a final and uniquely feminine form of follicular revenge.
It was a dangerous gambit, true enough; but instead of wrestling me with inhuman strength or gnashing at my neck, she let the wig fly and fell to my floor like a sack of overripe pomegranates, her face-down landing muffled by one of my many fine carpets, and laid there so limply that I wondered if she were, in fact, already un-undead.
After several minutes passed with no sign she would stir, I returned the heavy lamp I’d taken up as a weapon to its usual place, then lit it while I watched my new guest with one of my agile eyes.
I locked the door and stood over her for a moment considering the easiest ways to dispose of a body. Perhaps if I wrapped it in a carpet—not this one, certainly, but a threadbare and trampled carpet from the odalisque dressing room in the back of my office—and had it carried out in the morning, no one would be the wiser.
To my surprise, when I prodded her with the pommel of my jeweled dagger she began to moan softly and incoherently; or perhaps coherently, but in the language of the dead, which I had not yet, at that early stage in my rise to almost absolute power, learned to speak. After some deliberation I grasped her shoulder and cautiously rolled her over.
She was naked except for a few scraps of cloth and strips of what appeared to be seaweed; her body, flawless and worthy of the sultan just two days before, was now disfigured by oozing, egg-shaped lumps of purple-black flesh. Claw marks scarred her generous cranium where a catfight with a competitor must have torn at her scalp. Her eyes were sunken, her pallor ghastly, and her mouth slack and open. Yet—when I held my hand above the latter, I felt a subtle exhalation of warm air. It’s generally agreed that the undead can groan and moan just as well as the living, and often better. Whether they can breathe in some fashion is a subject of debate; but even so, warm air seemed out of the question.
As I considered the matter in more detail, I recalled that I’d been personally responsible for starting the rumors of zombie odalisques terrorizing our fine city—rumors which never had any basis in fact beyond the crash-landing of a single dead Occidental virgin near the harbor (in reality a simple matter of physical laws, since the pro-levitation agents in the magic carpet cleaner I’d forced her to drink had worn off before she could reach the ocean); and although Mala’s cadaverous scratching at my window had shocked the thought-worms nestling in my spacious skull into an extended and unjustified spasm of credulity which would have been physically perceptible were my attention not otherwise engaged, leading me to believe, however momentarily, that my miniature masterpiece of horror was true, calm reflection nevertheless suggested that some more mundane disease, syndrome, serial poisoning, or dietary deficiency must now be ravaging the royal harem, of which Mala was nothing more than the latest victim.
And yet . . . had I not seen her partake willingly of my couscous and dates before her delivery last night? If my memory told true, it was impossible to dismiss her affliction as simply another case of CCCDS—though I’d no doubt the Sultan’s Surgeon would hold to that diagnosis like a man holding fast to a runaway camel lest his poor riding technique be announced by an ignominious plunge into the sand. Despite his fluent citation of authoritative-sounding acronyms, the poor return on investment for his services did not incline me to grant him my full trust even in the art of autopsy, where he showed such undeniable talent that one couldn’t help but wonder whether his preliminary gestures of healing were only intended to provide its pretext. I therefore held entirely open the possibility, indeed, the likelihood, that some as yet unidentified disease was sweeping the seraglio: one that had struck down both of the odalisques I’d delivered for the sultan’s sex slave subscription service, and these prior to all his other females purely by some enormous mischance—since the provenance of my two offerings had, as I knew better than anyone else, nothing whatever in common, one being imported from the Occident and the other dredged up from the bottom of a dark, damp, slug-infested pit that any normal man would raise great armies to escape.
On second thought, perhaps their origins were more similar than I’d initially noticed; but even so, neither couscous deficiency syndrome nor zombification could be considered reliable answers to the riddle at my slippers.
My credulous error that night was, as it happened, the seed of an especially brilliant idea. As soon as it came to me I began to pace across my room—taking care to weave between the best carpets so as not to wear out their own weaving. True, there wasn’t a genuine zombie invasion at hand. But what if I were to simulate one?
An illusory surge of undead odalisques would squash two scorpions with one rock. Not only would it explain the harem deaths in such a way that blame fell entirely on supernatural forces rather than the deficient quality control of my sex slave subscription service; it would also provide a plausible justification for delaying the delivery of the scheduled third Occidental virgin redhead, perhaps even until the quarantine (a scheme by corrupt elements in the government to put entrepreneurs out of business) had been called off for good. And that wasn’t all: as a third, bonus benefit, deceiving the public on such a scale was surely the best possible practice for my true vocation.
With so many strong arguments in favor of simulating a zombie apocalypse, why even waste time considering the arguments against?
To effectuate this scheme, I realized, pausing my pacing to contemplate the body on my carpet, I needed a beautiful assistant. One who was trustworthy, or at the very least, powerless to escape my manipulative clutches; and one who also looked convincingly close to a genuine undead odalisque.
In other words, I needed Mala. Alive.
I took her in my arms and carried her to my couch, placed her on the same elegant cushion where my own cranium had nestled before her arrival, and then covered her with a light blanket. She moaned again and made a weak attempt to throw it off.
It occurred to me that I knew very little about caring for sick odalisques. Usually I didn’t make a particular fuss, but simply locked them up in a storage room and waited to see whether they would live or die. After all, there was a reason I invested in the best slave insurance: everything was covered. (On a financial level I had the resources to endure routine breakage without assistance; but the peace of mind that came from knowing I’d never have to worry about a few unscheduled deaths was priceless.)
Mala didn’t seem to be in any hurry to regain consciousness, and I needed to rest if I were to put on a credible show of business as usual the following day. So I held the dagger in case there was more trouble, extinguished the lamp, and sat in a low chair against the opposite wall while her dim shape flinched and shivered in the throes of fever.
I was haunted by a recurring fear that made it difficult to fall asleep. What if her sweat and pus stained the cushions permanently? I could afford new ones, of course, but I’d invested a great deal of effort collecting this particular ensemble of patterns and colors, and had since developed a personal attachment to it that would be hard to shrug off if they were spoiled.
I made a point of looking away. My eyes caught on the wig, which had fallen in a heap on my floor. A few long, stray locks trailed off into a shaft of starlight that slipped through the crack between curtains. As I drifted toward slumber I imagined those locks shining blood red where it touched them, but whenever I studied the wig with full attention I saw only a tangle of vague lines in a field of blue and gray.
Then my thought-worms slowed, and everything went dark.
The next morning I woke to a sore neck—the inevitable result of sleeping in a chair selected to complement my decor rather than to support a weight from which even the very well-developed muscles surrounding my spine required nightly relief.
Now that I could see Mala in the daylight my hopes for her survival were severely diminished. Smaller versions of the purple-black lumps at her armpits and groin were also erupting further down her thighs. Her eyes were half open, but she failed to react to my comforting presence with even the slightest sign of joy, and instead of breathing, her lungs, like a broken bellows, pumped out irregular gasps and wheezings. Yet there was little to lose by adhering to the plan I’d prepared the previous night, so I resolved to press on with my best efforts at healing. The results could certainly be no worse than the Sultan’s Surgeon had achieved, for the simple reason that the survival rate can never fall below zero.
I shifted some of the cushions to make her more comfortable and pulled the blanket up to her waist. Then, as soon as I heard my assistant arriving for work, I stepped out into the alley and took the back entrance to the slaving office.
Though my personal chambers and my workplace are part of the same building, there’s no door to directly connect them. It should go without saying that I’m not a believer in the so-called “work-life balance” sometimes praised in less demanding industries (as my father always asked me, “If you’re not working harder than your slaves, can you really expect to stay at the top of the slaving business?”), but I enjoyed my privacy; and more importantly, I wanted to avoid tempting the Occidental virgins on display at the front of my office to slip into my bed uninvited in the shortsighted hope that a quick and rather enjoyable deflowering would exclude them from consideration by one of the less palatable clients who had recently contemplated their price tag with an unsettling air of keen interest.
As I’d drifted off the previous night I’d come to the conclusion that the most evidence-based course of treatment was simply the reverse of whatever the doctor had recommended, so I gave my assistant a few dinars and told him to run out to the bazaar and bring back a jar of fresh camel milk and a large serving of cooked red meat, with no couscous. He gave me a strange look, but I raised a single threatening eyebrow to speed his progress, and by the time I’d brought out the display models he returned with the food.
I pureed the meat in the couscous grinder I’d bought to make a fattening porridge for girls who’ve lost too much weight during their journey to the Orient. Though they never see more than light use, I always buy the best quality appliances—this particular model was a Professional-Grade Miniature Miller imported from the Occident with a lifetime warranty. I had to apply extra force to the crank, but the machinery was solid, and the resulting bowl of brown slop came out credibly predigested. I told my assistant to watch the office, then took the ground goatmeat back to my rooms.
Mala was awake. Or more accurately, she was no longer asleep. Unfocused, drooling, and marked by swollen black lumps, she resembled a performing snake charmer whose overambitious attempt at mass hypnosis had recently failed to calm a pitful of cobras. I fed her the camel milk in little dribbles; she only managed half a spoonful of food.
After wiping her lips, I set the rest of the meat aside for later. There had to be something more I could do. I needed her to be exactly unhealthy enough to stagger around in public like a convincing zombie before the sultan demanded the delivery of his next sex slave, and she couldn’t possibly fill that role while comatose or dead.
I paced the room again, mulling over the doctor’s methods. He’d started with a bleeding; was the camel milk I’d provided sufficiently opposite to that operation, or would I need to have her drink blood—and if so, whose? I set that question aside for now; later in the day I could buy some blood from the butcher. The second treatment in the Examination and Autopsy Kiosk had been a double podiatric cauterization. I stopped at Mala’s couch-side and felt her forehead. Just as I’d suspected: a burning fever.
I reentered the office, unlocked the storage room—down the hallway I could see my assistant at the front of the office flattering a customer of no particular value—retrieved the ostrich-feather fans I used to instruct my odalisques, and then slipped back out before they could notice me.
The sun was directly overhead, making the alley blindingly bright. When I shut the door behind me again it took my eyes a moment to readjust to my own rooms. The air smelled of disease, the curtains were drawn, and the windows closed, but at this hour that was the only way to keep it cool enough for the operation I was about to undertake.
The logical opposite to the cauterization of both feet, I reasoned, was the chilling of a single head. Of course, since Mala only had one, there was little room for numerical confusion; moreover, the cooling treatment would be greatly facilitated by its lack of hair.
I positioned her glabrous globe so it jutted off the end of the couch, propped her neck up with a small cushion, and wet the top of her skull with a damp cloth, just as if I were cleaning the underside of a prized ceramic pot. Then I took a step back and began to fan her, using each arm to rotate one of the feathered devices in a full vertical circle, in the same way my old Occidental tutor had once spun his arms to illustrate the motion of the “windmills” common in his homeland. The conventional cooling techniques in which I instructed my slaves presupposed their owner had at least two odalisques, one on each side; but I couldn’t risk allowing anyone to discover Mala’s presence, and improvised this non-traditional form of convection as the best fallback form of climate control when constrained by low odalisquepower.
(Note for my innumerate readers: one odalisquepower has been defined as the amount of energy a single odalisque can remove from her master’s body when fanning him continuously with an ostrich-feather fan for one hour at sea level in the first month of the dry season. Obviously, the production of heat is measured in negative odalisquepower.)
I continued the windmilling motion for some time, learning the best way to angle my voluminous turban when the fans passed overhead (namely, nodding my neck gently from side to side like an inverted pendulum), and pausing only when I needed to polish more water onto the skin that covered her cranium. If Mala retained some shred of awareness, she might believe she was witnessing the elaborate mating dance of some exotic bird. When my muscles grew sore, I abandoned windmills and simply waved my arms up and down, alternating between left and right while bending the opposite knee, which seemed to improve the angle of the air and relieve some stiffness, but eventually decided I’d done as much as I could for the day and put the fans away.
Mala did not, I was forced to admit, seem much improved; but since the cooling power of even two ostrich-feather fans operating in tandem was still very much lower than the heating power of a single properly prepared double cauterization iron (at least negative three hundred odalisquepower by my rough estimation), I’d already calculated that it would be necessary to fan her repeatedly over the course of several days to achieve a similar degree of influence on her humors, and sometimes with the window open after dark, when the chill midnight wind so propitious to the perpetration of evil plots blew in from the desert and contributed a valuable supplement to the feathers’ cooling action. I needed only to persist, and to be patient.
Like a new parent who’d just given birth to a gigantic but very needy zombie baby, I slept little over the next several days, working the usual hours in my slaving office and sipping the olive oil with my patrons as if nothing were amiss, only to spend all my free hours at home feeding or fanning the sickly odalisque who now occupied my favorite couch. When I wasn’t busy slaving or cooling Mala’s cranium, I went out hunting for Occidental virgins—any Occidental virgins. But a severe shortage had struck the city, and there were none to be had for any price.
Even the smugglers to whom my pirate partners kindly referred me were stymied by the harshness of a quarantine that had brought our entire involuntary importation industry to a standstill. The outlaws’ impotence happily spared me from any temptation to engage their services—a desperate step that would have besmirched my family’s honorable history of plundering and importing only fully legal Occidental odalisques, none overage and all tariffs and duties promptly paid, so that even our most jealous competitors could never accuse us of less than exemplary conduct. Yet as I saw it, the Imperial Navy had become a greater threat to our society than the smugglers, having abandoned its fundamental duty to ensure the smooth flow of slaving ships from the Occident and deploying instead its entire might to keep any passenger from disembarking on our shores, without bothering to furnish the slightest shred of proof that the plague’s purported harmful effects on our citizenry would exceed in severity the damage these restrictions had already done to our economy, and to the human resources industry in particular.
I returned from this illicit meeting to find a message waiting for me. The single page was written by a eunuch in the Harem Administration and stamped with the sultan’s seal. While not quite the impatient demand for a new odalisque I’d been dreading, it came near enough: I was instructed to send a promissory note confirming the precise hour the next Occidental redhead would be delivered, and left with the strong impression that I was obliged to name a date far nearer to the present than the one originally scheduled in my sex slave subscription contract if I intended to avoid, or at least delay, an incapacitating bisection of my well-muscled neck.
I put off responding and went to check on Mala, hoping to find some good news. But to my discouragement she showed no signs of improvement—quite the contrary. I paced the floor searching my skull-contents for some way out of my predicament.
Another thoroughly shaven local slave girl would be the easiest answer, but it was only the good luck of her imprisonment in a very deep hole that had delivered Mala to me in such an unnaturally pale state. The obvious fast-acting remedy for dusky skin, namely a whole-body infusion of white lead, might indeed render an Oriental female convincingly colorless without an extended period of solitary confinement; but one need only possess the most rudimentary knowledge of alchemy to conclude that a cosmetic ingredient inducing slow death when applied to the face will induce rapid death when applied, whether by brush or by dousing or dipping in a vat, to the entire outer layer. Such a leaden lady might manage to survive a single night with the sultan—and once he’d taken her virginity he might not notice her dying any more than he noticed her dye—but those were two too many mights for such an important delivery; beyond which there were costs to consider, since ceruse is expensive even in modest quantities. As often happens in business, practical realities ruled out a solution that seemed at first so theoretically promising.
While these calculations were circling my skull with enough centrifugal force to press my thought-worms against its upper side-surfaces in spite of their natural attraction to the earth, I heard a thump behind me. I was sitting at the foot of Mala’s couch—my couch, that is—and facing the windows. The sound came from the wall shared with the office, and it took me a moment to recall what it meant: I always assigned one of my odalisques—typically whichever flaunts herself to customers with the least enthusiasm—to clean the premises, and a knock on the inner wall was the accepted advance signal for her periodic cleaning visit to my personal rooms.
If any of the bureaucrats in the sultan’s service caught the merest murmur that I’d harbored Mala in my illicit alternative medical ward for runaway sex slaves, I’d be ruined, if not by understandable royal wrath, then by an unrelenting legal assault from the Oriental Doctors’ Guild. Yet silencing the cleaner permanently would entail a degree of depreciation I couldn’t afford, the fashion for tongueless odalisques having faded already in my grandfather’s time. I hurried outside to meet her in the alley, and closed the door behind me just as she appeared bearing a bucket and a mop.
“No need for that today,” I told her. “You may return to the odalisque storage shed and resume lamenting your tragic fate in the usual manner.”
“What should I do with the water in the bucket, master slaver?” she asked in Occidental. “You said it was ‘more precious than my pretty but still fairly interchangeable face,’ and sternly instructed me never to waste a single drop.”
“Ah yes. Well, it’s yours to do with as you like, provided you promise to flirt more effectively when the Bey of Sewers visits tomorrow. Perhaps you’d like to leave it out front for some passing pigeons to drink.”
She thanked me and left without prying. An unobservant girl, or else dazzled by my magnanimity toward small animals; but it had been a near thing, and impressed on me the need for greater circumspection. If I’d been forewarned of Mala’s escape I could have rented her a second room in some other quarter of the city, as Occidental men are said to do for their mistresses: a very inefficient arrangement from a financial perspective, which must also create irritating logistical barriers to three- and four-somes; but it would have been a great help in assuring the secrecy of my ministrations.
Every day Mala grew thinner, and the black lumps on her skin swelled as if to burst. I redoubled my efforts to cool her cranium, and even tried alternate fanning motions, such as extending my arms whilst rotating my entire body in the manner of a whirling dervish; but though I applied these therapies with the diligent regularity of daily prayers, it was to no avail.
My situation seemed dire. Mala was dying, and there wasn’t a single replacement Occidental, or even faux-Occidental, virgin to be found anywhere in the capital. Weakened by the dizziness and torpor that followed a long fanning session carried out in the manner just indicated, I gave in to gloomy thoughts, and sat staring out my window on a moonless night, watching the faint shadows of rats racing across the alley, and feeling no better than the beggars who enjoyed very similar views without spending their lives sweating and striving for success in the slave trade. The injustice was galling. Would my rise to power really be foiled here, when it had barely begun?
Perhaps, I mused, I should throw it all away. Abandon the worldly illusions of ambition, and retreat to an easier life as the manager of some peaceful seaside brothel. I imagined myself sitting outside a dual-service hookah bar on a desert island, some dockside doxy serving my couscous in a coconut shell and massaging the miniature muscles between my toes; passing the days watching the palms sway and listening to the calming ocean waves while satisfied sailors smoked and whored and paid. Such temptingly poetic allure!
But a deep sense of destiny rose up to dampen my despair. Ever since my innocent youth as an apprentice slaver, I’d known, with some profound and innate certainty, that a glorious future awaited me: I’d overcome a seemingly insuperable series of challenges, and rise, in the fullness of time, to the elevated rank of evil vizier. True enough, the slaves I’d sent the sultan for the most important contract of my career were now expiring spontaneously of an unidentified disease, and an increasingly likely third delivery failure positioned my shoulders perfectly for a beheading. But if I kept my faith in darkness and held fast to my wicked ambitions, everything would surely turn out for the best.
This faith was soon to be confirmed. Just as I was deciding which carpet to sacrifice for the disposal of her corpse, I heard a rasping murmur from Mala’s direction. I drew closer to perceive the sound of her death rattle more distinctly, listening for traces of the characteristic sweet sarcasm that had marked her living voice. But instead it began to resemble the word “water” repeated over and over. A vision of approaching paradise?
Her eyelids fluttered.
Deciding a more literal interpretation of her words was in order, I offered the requested liquid. She took a sip. A very small one. Yet the coordinated motion of her lips was itself a notable sign of improvement.
The next morning she was able to chew a little food, and tried to speak on several occasions, though she managed no more than disconnected and incoherent mumbles.
Later that evening, after I returned from a busy day slaving, something very strange occurred. I dripped camel milk into her mouth, just as I’d done day after day since she came through my window, and when I had finished, I heard her say, softly but unmistakably: “Thank you.”
Something was very wrong. It was a phrase that had long ago been evicted from Mala’s vocabulary, never to be uttered even in the aftermath of a daring rescue from a deep well by an unusually handsome savior.
Had the thought-worms inhabiting Mala’s cranium, provoked by the extreme fluctuation of temperatures a recurring cycle of fevers and cooling treatments entailed, undergone some kind of extraordinary transformation, just as worm-like insects are said to transform into butterflies under the appropriate seasonal conditions? Or—a more disturbing thought still—did such a transformation actually precede and cause her “illness,” which was nothing more than the externally visible sign of their intracranial cocooning, heralding the development of an unrecognizably flighty and vivacious personality that would be fully expressed upon her revival?
I lifted her head to gauge whether its perceived weight was reduced by any internal flapping and flying, but it felt entirely normal. Possibly, I considered, she had simply uttered the two words with an intended sarcasm that her diseased tongue could not properly translate into tones—a lisp of sincerity that would strike a devastating blow to her normal methods of communication should it prove to be a lasting injury. Whatever the case, I’d discern the answer soon enough.
The following day she began to eat more, and then started to communicate in complete sentences. I pried her story out in pieces.
Hoarsely and haltingly, Mala explained that she’d awakened in the palace for the first time only to notice black blemishes erupting on her body. She knew her life was at risk—any female afflicted by poor skin would be mercilessly culled from the harem—and fled before the other odalisques realized they had an opportunity to demand her execution. The only way she could escape was through the river behind the palace gardens, which was so infested with crocodiles that none dared cross it. Desperate to survive, and more willing to try her luck with predatory reptiles than to trust her fate to the good intentions of her fellow females, she leapt into the water. Whatever disease had afflicted her skin must have also fouled her scent: the current dragged her to the harbor without any animal so much as nibbling her nose. But her condition worsened rapidly. Afraid to bring the full wrath of the imperial government on her family by returning home, she hid until dark, then ran to the only person who, in her delirium, she thought might help. Namely, her former owner: a humble slave trader and aspiring evil vizier whose generous heart did indeed, as she told it, inspire him to offer the needed food and shelter.
I gave little credence to this imputation of generosity, which evidently concealed an ulterior motive on her part, but even so it made me doubt whether my mannerisms were as intimidating, and my slaves as cowed by fear of my arbitrary and malignant wrath, as I’d believed them to be. Did they think this slave dealership was a joke—some kind of free all-you-can-smoke hookah bar or pro bono hashish hotel where they could make merry as they pleased? Certain changes were clearly in order.
“Your priceless red wig came loose in the river, I assume?” I prodded. But the story of her escape, which she expressed in spare sentences spread out over the course of hours, had exhausted her. She dozed off.
Feeling more at peace than I had since my holiday was interrupted days ago, I straightened up the room. The tables and floors were covered in a thick layer of the dust that accumulates so rapidly across the Orient during the dry season, and the cleaning girl had been due for good reason; but all that could wait. When the day dimmed, I sat on the floor, leaned my back against Mala’s couch—I no longer feared she would rise and attack me with supernatural strength if I let down my guard—and followed her to unconsciousness.
In a few days she seemed more herself, and even asked to share my bowl of breakfast couscous—which I naturally refused her.
“Is this your way of taking revenge on me?” she asked. She was still afflicted by such a thick rasp that I’d no way to know if her tone was playful, bitter, or sincere.
“I’ve carefully formulated your strict diet of red meat and camel milk, whose miraculous healing properties are made obvious by your renewed ability to cast skeptical, if rather bleary and unfocused, glances in the general vicinity of my person,” I informed her. “If a man of my ability, inclination to evil, and willingness to crush all who stand in the way of my inevitable rise to power were to take revenge on one who had wronged him, even a half-conscious invalid whose thought-worms had recently undergone a disorienting metamorphosis would not lack certainty regarding his ill intentions.”
“I appreciate the effort it must have taken for a man with your careless disregard for human life to speculate on the best diet for its preservation,” was her approximate reply, “but I’d recover more quickly if I were fed a normal ration of couscous and dates, and not subjected to your farfetched culinary crackpottery.”
“Ah, but this overconfident outburst, though perhaps only intended to demonstrate the remarkable improvement of your spirits, is made in abject ignorance of the sorry fate that befell your bosom friend soon after your unauthorized departure from the harem.”
“Bosom friend? I had no chance to meet any of the other girls. Nor was I led to believe that particular term had any application within the harem walls. According to the eunuchs who presided over my new odalisque orientation, intense competition for the sultan’s scarce affections inspires his women to underhanded and vicious habits that even the countless concubines of his most prominent pashas would struggle to envisage.”
“Was there not,” I asked, my intonation making clear that I already possessed the answer, “a woman who restyled your hair, so that you could be introduced to the sultan in the titillating coiffure of an Occidental schoolmistress?”
“There . . . yes. Yes, I remember her. She refused to speak a single word to me. But—how could you know?”
A near admission of fault; apparently genuine uncertainty: evidence of the suspected personality change, or merely proof that Mala hadn’t fully recovered? “I know much and understand more, my dear,” I spread my arms evocatively. “You should picture my awareness as an omniscient, violet vapor that penetrates every cranny of our capital, from whose relentless processes of diffusion no secrets are safe.” An exaggeration, perhaps; but it was important that I cultivate the image of an evil vizier if I hoped to one day make it a reality.
At this Mala was overcome by a kind of coughing fit difficult to distinguish, at least in a written description, from uncontrollable laughter. I brought her the jar of camel milk to wet her throat, and after licking a streak of white liquid from the edge of her lip she said, “I didn’t like her. She was examining my hair too closely while she pinned it up. Fondling it, smelling it. I think she was jealous that my false red hair was better than her genuine red hair. But I worried she’d notice something amiss, so I wiggled while she was working. She pricked herself, and ran off in a huff as soon as she finished.”
“I am well aware of all that; but what I know that you do not is that she died the very next day, and likely of the same disease that would have carried you off if it weren’t for my unprecedented healing innovations.”
“Innovations? Did you consult a doctor, an apothecary, or a professor?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes; but the essential insights, which came later, were the novel product of processes that unfolded within my own unusually large cranium.” I paused, but no response was immediately forthcoming. “If you wish to display your admiration, you need not overburden me with earnest but awkwardly stated praise, but simply continue breathing for however long you feel the grateful need to pay tribute to my achievement,” I told her. “But when,” I went on, abruptly changing the subject, “did you remove my priceless red wig? Not before you left the harem, I pray.”
“The brackish water in the river weakened the glue, and when I washed up in the harbor I celebrated my escape by tearing it off—since I knew you’d whinge about rescuing me without your precious wig, I very considerately resisted the urge to throw it in a gutter. From the moment I put it on that repellent tangle of rust itched like a welter of tiny mosquito bites encircling my head.” She spoke as if permitting her life to be saved on such even terms had been an act of admirable generosity; bluster perhaps intended to postpone awareness of her precarious new circumstances.
“How wise of you,” I began. But she was now rubbing her occipital bone, a look of dawning horror on her face. It appeared she’d not noticed until this very moment that she was, in fact, as hairless as a burrowing dune-mouse. Intent on forestalling any further trauma and preserving her sanity until she accepted my plan, I quickly interjected, “There’s no need to worry about your delightfully low-maintenance new hairstyle, which is surely fashionable in some corner of the world particularly troubled by fleas and lice. Your radiant beauty remains undimmed by this or any of the other fresh physical defects your overactive mind might now be imagining.”
“I’m bald!” she gasped, sitting up in her sick-couch.
That was the least of her problems. Mala resembled a rotting cadaver. She’d become exceedingly thin, and though the egg-shaped lumps had receded, she was still marked by grim purple-black splotches; her fingertips were entirely black. I’d kept the shutters and curtains tightly drawn since she’d begun to heal, hoping to delay the moment she realized her condition had removed her from the odalisque market, almost certainly for good, and reduced her to an ordinary low-budget house slave of the kind I’d never allow inside my shoppe. Happily, there were no mirrors near (I preferred to tie my turban each morning alongside my charges in the odalisque dressing room).
“Ah yes. But some women look more appealing in short hairstyles,” I lied, “and indeed best of all when bald; and at any rate your real hair will grow back soon enough. I’ll lend you a black wig in the meantime, though I’m afraid I’ll have to repossess the red one.”
“Will you please? I hope never to set eyes on it again,” she laid back down.
“Excellent. But there is a condition.”
“I knew there would be a condition. Deals with the devil surely have less fine print than your voluntary enslavement contracts.” She was speaking to the ceiling.
“I see you’re beginning to understand the difference between a deal and a contract, which even many pashas fail to grasp before they tumble into a bottomless pit of pecuniary peril,” I replied. “As if I hadn’t already given you more than enough in return for your voluntary enslavement agreement by rescuing you from near certain death—twice—I shall, like a tutelary djinn whose sheltering lamp’s tarnished outer surface was just polished with well-appreciated care, grant you three further boons. First, I shall permit you to set aside the red wig. Second, I shall hide you from the Chief Eunuch and his minions. And third, I shall fabricate a new identity enabling you to live out the rest of your somewhat unfortunate though not quite affectingly tragic life in relative peace.”
She lifted her head again, and raised one eyebrow higher still. “And in return?”
“As usual, I expect very little. You need only assist me in simulating a small zombie apocalypse.”
“Oh, well, as long as it’s small,” she said.
“Oh yes, quite small. There’s only so much two people can do, after all.”
“Have you gone quite insane!” she tried to scream, but her voice cracked and she broke into another fit of coughing.
“Now, now, you mustn’t work yourself into a tizzy over a little zombie apocalypse,” I said. I walked over to the couchside and awkwardly tried to pat her on the head, but she batted me away and continued coughing. “Would you like some more camel milk?” I asked, holding up a jar.
“No I would not like some more camel milk,” she hissed.
Eventually the coughing subsided and she sank back against the pillow. “I’ve often wondered,” she said, flushed with the return of her fever but pressing forward with more energy than before, “why the apparent girth of your cranium is not matched by a comparable degree of wisdom, success, or any other of the usual hallmarks of intelligence. And I’ve come to the conclusion, confirmed by your latest proposal, that the entirety of your mental machinery is dedicated to discovering the most roundabout and convoluted methods for accomplishing the simplest things.”
“Precisely the objection miniature minds always make when confronted by genius beyond the lamentable limits of their comprehension,” I replied. While that should have been rebuke enough for such uncreative criticism, I considered the details to be worthy of mention. “Need I remind you that I am the only slaver in this empire who both rescued you from imprisonment (not to mention the slow starvation that would have ensued after you’d finished consuming your entire supply of pet racing mollusks) and healed you from the normally deadly aftereffects of a spontaneous thought-worm metamorphosis, or else some other even less survivable syndrome which, like so many rare afflictions, is easier to cure than to identify?” I asked the ungrateful slave.
She ignored the question. “What are you expecting to achieve with this . . . ‘small zombie apocalypse?’ And why do you assume I’ll agree to become a zombie just because you rescued me from certain doom once or twice, which, considering my rare and exceptional beauty, almost any male would have been delighted to do?”
“Simulated small zombie apocalypse,” I corrected. “No actual zombies are required. We shall dress you up in a torn and tattered transparent top and apply several layers of very thick makeup to give you the undead ‘look,’ drawing scars and deep circles around your eyes and down your cheeks,” (in truth there was no need for any special costume or cosmetics), “which may well come into fashion if your unique modeling debut is well-received. Then we shall gallivant about the city, scaring citizens hither and thither, until every butcher, baker, and bashi-bazouk in the bazaar believes the Orient has been overrun by an army of unusually attractive undead odalisques.” I waved both arms expansively as I spoke, carried away by the malign majesty of my own designs. “The sultan’s pashas will persuade him to declare martial law and institute a strict and universal quarantine that extends to the immeasurably distant borders of his almost endless empire—justifying a postponement of my contractual obligations even His Highness will have no choice but to accept, and therefore providing me with the precious time I need to secure a fresh supply of genuine Occidental virgin redheads. True,” I slowed down and made a show of restraining my justified enthusiasm, “a little deception is involved. But there’s nothing technically illegal about misleading our civilization into a total shutdown just to facilitate the continued growth of my sex slave subscription service.” I looked at her, anticipating a gasp of admiration at my villainous audacity.
“Have you considered simply filing for an extension?” she asked, as if confident the obvious would never have occurred to me.
“Very funny, my dear odalisque. By now you should be aware that the risk of incurring the sultan’s wrath when redheads are at stake is too great to allow even the whispered hint of a contractual infraction to brush past the nearly invisible hairs protruding from his outer ears. The eunuchs are already beginning to feel that this exclusive subscription agreement has given me too much influence.” Of course, if I had my way, it was only the beginning. “I expect them to argue that any failure to fulfill its terms to the letter under the most casuistic interpretation of the relevant sections of imperial slaving law is a threat to harem security. They’ll then use this purported threat to justify their arrogation of extraordinary powers, which they’ll immediately turn against me—your own beheading being less than an afterthought, though still a sure one. No, I’m afraid a zombie apocalypse is the only practical answer.”
“Couldn’t you hire a handful of street urchins instead of conscripting an odalisque who’s presently off-duty during a very well-deserved extended sick leave? Child zombies are more frightening than adults; and many of the little monsters so delight in mischief that they’d volunteer without expecting a single dinar in return,” said Mala.
“That would be true enough if the levitating corpse who kindly lifted us from your underground prison hadn't already crash landed in the capital, and thus, with some assistance from a certain humble slaver, seeded highly contagious rumors of angry ex-odalisques running amok. The most sensible plan is to build on this preexisting foundation of hearsay by simulating a small zombie odalisque apocalypse, which, to avoid spraining your currently swollen and therefore easily twisted tongue, you may more safely refer to as an odacalypse. In short, the zombie odalisques are non-negotiable.”
After a long pause that most would have interpreted as evidence of the awed respect my elucubrations deserve, Mala finally said, “That’s . . . not the most absurd plan you’ve ever concocted,” while rolling her eyes and staring intently at the ceiling, where some manner of fly buzzing about in circles must have attracted the interest of her rather poorly controlled ocular apparatus.
“I’m glad you’re beginning to see reason,” I said. Perhaps this zombie recruitment drive would be easier than I’d feared.
I thought I heard a noise in the alley, so I stood from the chair I’d pulled up beside Mala’s couch, walked to the window, and peered out. No one was there. I opened it slightly and breathed a few breaths of clean air, then turned back to the invalid. “It seems you did indeed undergo some manner of cognitive transformation, which, though it could not improve your disposition to the degree one might have hoped—so many emotions are regulated by the liver, and in women, by even lower organs—did nevertheless enhance your cranial capacity enough to permit a glimmer of appreciation for the unparalleled cleverness of my plot.”
“When I said it wasn’t your ‘most’ absurd plan,” Mala replied, “I was expressing my even greater disdain for your other inconceivably foolish schemes. Sick and two-thirds asleep on this couch, I’ve had a recurring dream where you stand over me, dancing and swaying with feathers on your arms like some kind of giant, flightless bird attempting to fly. So low is my opinion of your practical wisdom—your nose already having a convincingly beak-like shape—that on several occasions I believed these inept oscillations to be quite real.”
Although the medical miracle I’d just pioneered had already more than proven my talents, I knew Mala was unprepared to accept the magnificent novelty of my cranial cooling treatment, or even the logic of reversal that generated the theoretical framework behind it; so I let her entirely inaccurate description of my nose pass without challenge. “If you are capable of experiencing such vivid visions, my dear, you are more than sufficiently healthy to begin preparations for your debut starring role as a zombie odalisque. Indeed, we should start at once, before you heal out of the part.”
“You speak as if my agreement were a foregone conclusion,” she said; but I detected a fatalistic resignation creeping under her halfhearted protest.
“Pray tell what, dear Mala, you intend to do if I manumit you this very day without first enrolling you in my escaped odalisque protection program. Will you return home—and bring ruin to your family when someone recognizes you as the sultan’s rightful sex slave?” In truth this was exceedingly unlikely. Not only was her appearance considerably altered, but the harem administration had never established, nor needed to establish, a task force for chasing down escaped odalisques. After the first few days it isn’t the difficulty of departing that holds women in the royal harem, but the incomparably luxurious lifestyle they enjoy there after their deflowering; for once a girl has crossed the threshold into the unrestrained pleasures of Oriental debauchery, self-regard compels her to justify the step with whatever semblance of logic she can call to mind—thus barring the return path with more potent spells than the sandstone door to an ifrit’s treasure room. Of course all this was unknown to Mala; and as we say in the bazaar, “Ignorance is the wellspring of profit.”
“Hm. And how long must I act in your simulated odacalypse if I am to qualify for this ‘escaped odalisque protection program?’ I need only appear a few times in the guise of the undead?” she asked. “Am I permitted to ree and scree as I will, or to haunt those who wronged me in life? Perhaps, for example, to terrify and torment the tax collectors who bankrupted my father and brought about my enslavement? Or,” she went on, starting to warm to the idea of returning as a vengeful spirit, “should I visit that childhood playmate who called me an ‘ugly little boy’ when I was late to develop, and traumatize her into a miscarriage with a series of sudden and alarming paranormal manifestations? Or better still—can you deny that I should curse the slaver who imprisoned me in a dry well with loud and public curses encompassing all who buy his products, so that he and his family and his family’s family will be ruined and cast out into the desert and eaten by scavengers after dying of thirst when I chase them from every spring, wadi, and oasis and watch them succumb to heat-stricken insanity in the vast and trackless desert to the south!?” As she went on her broken voice accelerated with a hellish glee that must have been fed by some subterranean fissure in her soul, her face shone with sweat and fever, and I wondered for a moment whether I really was bargaining with a vengeful spirit who had re-inhabited the body of my former faux-redhead.
“Stop, stop, O odalisque, there is no need to list and insist at such length today; you will re-sicken yourself, and then where will we be? Yes, if you were to haunt your past enemies it would certainly increase the realism of your rise from the dead, and your enthusiasm for the task further speaks to your suitability. Fear not: despite your marked lack of qualifications I shall consider no other actress for the coveted leading role in my small zombie apocalypse simulation.” Witness, dear readers, the masterful salesmanship with which I reframed my plea for assistance as a charitable willingness to arrange preferential treatment for a needy applicant. “To slake your thirst for stardom I’ve even reserved multiple roles. You shall appear not only as the obstinate Oriental who disappeared from the well, but on at least one occasion in the guise of the redheaded Occidental virgin who fell into the river, so that, believing her death by zombification confirmed, the eunuchs will absolve me from any liability for her allegedly diseased delivery; and to burnish your public image I shall allow you to play other, more likeable characters once your acting skill has improved. I should say former redheaded virgin,” I appended a deflationary afterthought to bolster my bargaining position, “since, just as the first levitation causes a sudden and irreversible depreciation in the value of a newly purchased magic carpet, so your first night in the sultan’s bed has caused your price at auction to fall precipitously.”
“Oh no, that part of my identity remains quite real,” she corrected me.
“As I just said, I am still a virgin.”
“But . . . how? Did you fail to adequately execute the various wigglings and jigglings appropriate to awaken the sultan’s interest? Did you neglect to notice even the first two words in your fairly self-explanatory job title of ‘sex slave to His Royal Highness??!!’” I discovered I was shouting and immediately shut my mouth. I hoped the daily chaos in the bazaar would cover my authoritative tenor, but soon after Mala begin recounting the tale of her visit to the sultan’s bedchamber, there came a knock from the alley.
“Not a word,” I hissed, “if you care for your life.”
It was too risky to ignore the visitor, for if I failed to explain myself he’d spread gossip about my bizarre activities through the bazaar, damaging my reputation as a reliably unoriginal middle-class merchant at whose home nothing stranger than the start of a new but already very widely practiced hobby could ever occur. And yet, in full view of the door, surrounded by cushions and rumpled blankets, lay a bald escaped sex slave covered with strange purple markings: a variety of creature not widely found in respectable homes, and whose effect on my social standing was potentially worse than that of cracks in my tadelakt, or even outdated floor tiling.
My agile eyes darted over the furnishings like a pair of little lizards scuttling over rocks in search of a hiding place. The heavy couches abutted the walls; the small tables in the corners had been chosen for their decorative flair, and were useless for anything beyond attractively displaying my fine lamps and pottery. Fortunately the spirit of improvisation, which ever guards those destined for greatness, guided me to a solution. I hurriedly unhooked the carpets hung behind the couch and draped them over the invalid odalisque, shushing her predictable protestations while she disappeared from view.
More knocking, and more insistent.
“I’ll be right there!” I called out; and whispered into the carpets: “Not a sound.”
I drew an old broom from the back of my slipper closet and struck them a few times to stir up a cloud of accumulated dust; they muffled her reflexive squeals. Then I opened the door and tightened the muscles in my upper cheeks while slightly parting my lips to form a reasonable approximation of an amiable expression.
I was greeted by the short but well-turbaned figure of the sash-seller. His shop was situated on the opposite side of the alley, adjacent real-estate which benefited him considerably, not only on account of the association with my established luxury slaving brand, but also through a mutually profitable informal arrangement: I would instruct each odalisque to importune her new owner as she left my premises, leaning toward him and fluttering lashes that had been especially thickened for the purpose by means of a proprietary mixture of coconut oil, kohl, and ground beetle carapace (black, with a hint of iridescent glitter), “Oh, my wealthy and puissant pasha, surely you’ll buy me a new sash from the shop next door on the way back to your palace!” (even pashas struggle to refuse when their concubines’ bauble-begging is executed with compelling cuteness); and in return the sash-seller would recommend my slaves to his patrons, thanks to which a bey who’d come to the bazaar to buy baubles for one of his wives’ anniversaries would find himself wandering over to my slaving office after his purchase, wondering whether he should invest instead in a new odalisque, who would, after all, provide livelier pleasures than another navel ring, and with the added benefit of rendering the aforesaid wife’s disappointment at his incomplete belly-dancing gift-set a matter of very little interest.
“Is everything all right, effendi?” the sash-seller inquired. “I heard you arguing with a woman. Of course I know you wouldn’t allow one of your slaves to stir your temper. Did you perhaps take a new wife? Some say they’re easier to manage in twos, for they expend such energy arguing with each other that one need reprimand them no more than a few times per year, and then only with a very short rod; I have a good friend who arranged a double marriage with just this idea in—”
“No, no, I’m afraid not,” I interrupted impatiently, for the sash-seller tended to prattle on once he began speaking. But instinct reminded me that nothing was more important than maintaining appearances—not only to keep Mala hidden and advance my business, but as a neighborly neighbor in a good neighborhood. I therefore forced myself to make innocuous conversation in a friendlier tone.
“Certainly on first consideration slaving and sash-selling seem nearly identical occupations, but they do differ in some relevant details, and given the exigencies of my profession I haven’t had time to find the right kind of wife, let alone two; a lack of cousins multiplies the difficulty immensely. No, regrettably I was only dusting my carpets, as you can see,” I gestured through the door with the broom, which I was still grasping by the bristles, and continued chattily. “They’re too dear to entrust their cleaning to my uncultured Occidental slaves, who can hardly tell the difference between a master-craftsman’s best carpet and an empty couscous sack that’s been dropped on the floor. As I was delicately beating out the dust I decided to pass the time by singing, alternating between a high and low voice as the whim crossed my cranium. The grit flying into the air gradually accumulated in my throat and hindered this easy flow of melody, so that when I began to strike a particularly thick corner of carpet, my exertions compressed the air exiting my lungs—causing a very musically-intentioned phrase to come out in a strangled soprano, just as you heard.”
“How strange. You do truly have a talent for the upper register. Yet I can’t help but think you’d do better to stay with the ney, a noble and very quiet instrument, at least in the more advisable lower tones, and leave vocalizing to those who inhabit quarters of our capital where monied customers fear to tread, and who also have a knack for recognizable melody. By the way, it’s rather unusual to beat rugs indoors, wouldn’t you say?”
“To the contrary,” I replied. “It wouldn’t do to let the sun fade well-woven threads. The Carpet-Makers’ Alliance advises all good quality carpets be beaten indoors, and only with a soft-bristle broom. But you may reassure your patrons that my foray into singing is not intended to be a regular attraction of this slaving office. Since it’s difficult to play the ney in tune while swinging a broom at the correct angle, it was necessary to improvise an alternative form of music-making suited to this unique occasion.”
“Ah, very true about the sun. I can feel a heat wave building” —he returned with evident pleasure to the familiar and neighborly ground of discussing the weather— “tomorrow may still be worse! I wish you well in your carpet beating, provided the musical accompaniment does not recur with excessive frequency. I can give you the name of my cleaner if you’d like; he’s very thorough.”
I told him there was no need, promised not to sing again today, and cutting off his attempts to drag out our conversation with more tact than I was really in the mood to deploy, ushered him away.
As soon as I closed the door Mala began mumbling under the carpets, and the words she had for me when I finally removed them were delivered with a forthright and unstudied vigor of the sort I won’t allow to sully the pages of this timeless historical document.
I let her sputter on until she wore herself out, ignored her tirade completely, and said in an unexpectedly pleasant tone, “Thank you, dear odalisque, for applying to participate in the small zombie apocalypse I’ve scheduled for tomorrow. We’ll begin before dawn; I’ll leave you to your own devices for the rest of the afternoon. Please make sure you’re still sick, though not actually dying, for your debut performance.”
As I let myself out, I heard her rasping loudly from the couch, “Tomorrow?! I haven’t even agreed to act in your—”
And then I shut the door, and went to take a cup of coffee at my favorite shop in the bazaar.
Continued in Chapter X — A Brief History of Paranormal Cosmetology